Kim Wheatley, Shelley and His Readers: Beyond Paranoid Politics. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1999. ISBN: 0826212212. Price: US$34.95. (£29.50).[Notice]

  • Dianna Gilroy

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  • Dianna Gilroy
    Purdue University

As its title suggests, Kim Wheatley's absorbing study examines the reception of selected works by Shelley within a critical and political discourse characterized by the "paranoid style." Wheatley takes this phrase from historian Richard Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1965); with it she describes the hostile and aggressive rhetoric of contemporary reviewers who attacked not only Shelley but also reformist writers in general. Romantic-era paranoid rhetoricians indulged in conspiratorial fantasies: imagining their entire value system as under impending threat, they greatly exaggerated the power of their opponents. They eschewed any comprehensive analysis of social unrest and instead ascribed to individuals the power of influencing or controlling large groups of people. And since, as Wheatley points out, "the publication of reformist texts was a key element in extraparliamentary political activity," these practitioners of the paranoid style exhibited "a preoccupation with the efficacy of the printed word" (p. 2). Their fears and suspicions were heightened by the perception that reformist texts automatically effected readers and that the contagion of reformist ideas reached even the illiterate. In Wheatley's hands, Hofstadter's "paranoid style" becomes a useful analytic tool in describing the unstable discourse of such establishment journals as the Tory Quarterly Review and the Whig Edinburgh Review, one that Wheatley continually complicates as her research unfolds. In her introduction, for instance, she discusses what she calls the "Satanic scenario," in which attacks by establishment critics generate counterattacks by their relatively powerless opponents, including poets, who do not realize that they are allowing the paranoid rhetoricians to dictate the terms of public debate. The reformers or poets play the part of Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost in that "Satan is always God's product, structural complement, and support-system." Wheatley's examination of the dialogue between Shelley's poetry and its public reception reveals a move away from the dynamics of the Satanic scenario in Shelley's later poems. She argues that Shelley's early, radical poem, Queen Mab (1813), "reveals its limitations in welcoming a derivative Satanic position, a position that the poem's contemporary reception confirms." His later poems, Prometheus Unbound and Adonais (1821), also "take their place within the simultaneously enabling and disabling dynamics of the Satanic scenario"; however—and this is the central claim of Wheatley's argument—"these later poems, in dialogue with the reviewers, succeed in avoiding a merely oppositional stance" (p. 3). Wheatley sees Shelley's movement away from paranoid politics as a movement towards transcendental idealism; in opening up a nonpartisan aesthetic space Shelley offers a way out of an unethical and closed system of political discourse. In her project of recuperating Shelley's idealism Wheatley brings together two main schools of Shelley criticism, historical and formalist, in order to focus on Shelley's political involvements and his interactions with contemporary reviewers while at the same time to provide close textual analysis both of the poet's works and of his critics' commentaries. She centers her analysis on three major works representing "certain highly charged episodes in the reception history of Shelley's poetry [that] constitute a temporary bringing to life of his idealism" (p. 7). The book's strength is in Wheatley's ability to astutely combine methods: her research in the historical and political context of Shelley's works is meticulous, and it thoroughly informs her insightful close readings of the reviews and poems. Her scholarship offers a model of particular depth and elegance. Wheatley begins chapter 1, "Paranoid Politics," by analyzing examples of the paranoid style from the Quarterly Review and the Edinburgh Review, providing a context for her discussion of Shelley's poems and their reception in later chapters. Robert Southey figures largely in this section as an …

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